Yemen clashes leave 13 dead as unity government sworn in


Weekend clashes in southern Yemen left two government soldiers and 11 suspected members of Al-Qaeda dead, military and local sources told AFP Saturday. Government troops have for months been battling al Qaeda linked fighters in the troubled Abyan province, notably in the areas surrounding the provincial capital Zinjibar, where the latest clashes took place.
“Two soldiers were killed and forty others injured in battles that broke out when Al-Qaeda fighters attacked the positions of Battalion 201”, based in the northeast of Zinjibar, a military source told AFP. A local source told AFP that “11 Al-Qaeda fighters, including one Iraqi, perished in the battles.”
The clashes, which first broke out Friday, continued on Saturday afternoon, both sources said.
In a separate incident, a suspected member of Al-Qaeda, who was abducted by tribal fighters battling Islamists in the area, was killed by his guards on Saturday morning, as he tried to escape detention in the Abyan village of Loder, a tribal source told AFP.
Yemeni government forces backed by tribal fighters and sometimes supported by US drone strikes have been battling the Partisans of Sharia, an Al-Qaeda linked group, that has controlled Zinjibar since May. Al-Qaeda has profited from the instability caused by 11 months of protests against Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, strengthening its positions across the south of the country.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s national unity government, led by the opposition, was sworn in Saturday to lead a three-month transition period until early elections are held and President Ali Abdullah Saleh formally steps down, an official statement said. The statement, carried by the official Saba news agency, said the swearing-in ceremony took place at the Republican Palace in the capital Sanaa in the presence of Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
The new 34-member cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa, will carry out its duties until February elections, after which Hadi will take over the presidency for an interim two-year period as stipulated by a Gulf-sponsored deal drafted to resolve Yemen’s political crisis.
Half of the new cabinet posts were entrusted to members of the opposition Common Forum, while Saleh loyalists were appointed to the other half, a condition stipulated in the Gulf plan signed by Saleh on November 23. Saleh’s ministers for foreign affairs and defence have retained their posts, while the interior ministry, the human rights portfolio, finance and information ministries have been entrusted to the opposition.
The Gulf initiative gave Hadi temporary authority to rule Yemen and form a unity government until elections in which he will be the only candidate. Once Hadi is elected, Saleh will then lose his current title of honorary president and officially be removed from power. The power-transition deal also gave Saleh and his close relatives immunity from prosecution for crimes he allegedly committed in the uprising against his rule that has left hundreds of people dead and thousands more wounded since it began in January.
However, the protesters who have thronged the streets of the capital and other Yemeni cities have rejected the immunity clause and continue to demand that the long-time dictator go on trial. On Saturday, thousands of protesters marched in Yemen’s flashpoint city of Taez, demanding Saleh be tried. “No immunity, no assurances,” chanted the protesters.
Taez has witnessed some of the worst violence in the months of unrest, as armed tribesmen who have thrown their support behind the protesters continue to battle Saleh’s troops. In the last week alone, more than 30 people have been killed in the fighting. Resolving Yemen’s deteriorating security situation will likely be the most difficult challenge facing the new government.
Saleh’s sons and nephews still control much of the country’s elite military units, and unresolved conflicts with rebels, separatists and Al-Qaeda militants continue to threaten stability. On December 4, Vice President Hadi formed a military commission in line with the transition plan to oversee the restructuring of the security forces. The 14-member commission will also tackle the withdrawal of gunmen from the streets in a bid to restore order in the country.
The capital Sanaa remains divided, with pro-Saleh troops controlling some neighbourhoods, and dissident soldiers under the control of Saleh’s arch rival, defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, controlling other areas. Gunmen loyal to Yemen’s most influential tribal leader, Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, primarily stationed in Sanaa’s Hasaba district, are also fighting Saleh loyalists.
Another major challenge for the incoming government will be fixing Yemen’s shattered economy and reinstating basic services. Taha al-Fusail, an advisor to Yemen’s ministry of industry told AFP Saturday that the country is suffering from major electricity and fuel shortages, adding that poverty levels have risen dramatically in the months of unrest. “Poverty levels stood at about 46 percent in Yemen in 2009…now it’s about 65 or 75 percent,” said Fusail, noting that Yemen’s economy has lost “$10 to $12 billion this year because of the political troubles.